The Greek Government's austerity drive has inadvertently triggered problems with the country's drug supply, causing shortages of hundreds of medicines. Eva Karamanoli reports from Athens.
Greece's health sector seems to be sinking day by day, without any sign of recovery. The beginning of 2012 found patients queuing outside pharmacies to get their prescriptions filled. Instead of holding receipts of their social service funds in their hands, they were holding money. “We need to pay in cash and then, after months, get the money from social security”, says Aggeliki Stavrou. Still, it's not certain that they will get the drugs needed.
In the past few months, according to the Panhellenic Association of Pharmacists, 500 commonly used drugs are in short supply. Among them, there are drugs for hypertension, gastroenterological disorders, cancer, kidney diseases, and painkillers. Pharmacists often turn to each other to exchange medicines to cover their clients' needs. “Every day we come across red codes in our computers in a variety of medicines most of which aren't in stock, or their availability is very low. We try to serve our clients by exchanging medicines among colleagues. Last week, I gave to a pharmacy in Perama Madopar (used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease) and they gave me Keppra (used to treat epilepsy)”, says Georgia Fanourakis, a pharmacist in Pireaus, implying that there are times when even aspirin is in short supply.
A few months ago, the only reason for a patient being unable to get the medicine prescribed would be that the pharmacists were on strike. Now the drugstores are open but they are out of stock. Greece's drug supply is drying up because of several reasons, all linked to the country's financial crisis.
Last year, the government mandated lower drug prices to cut down its medical expenses. Medical expenses were €2·4 billion in 2004, €5·2 billion in 2009, and dropped to €1·65 billion in 2011, after the measure was taken. However, the government's decision has fed a secondary market since wholesalers prefer to sell their products in other countries where the profit is higher. The situation gets more difficult because of how the Greek health system operates. Social service funds, according to the latest update, owe pharmacists €400 million. As a consequence pharmacists are unable to pay their suppliers and thus begins an endless cycle. That is the reason that pharmacists announced in mid-January that patients will be provided with medicine only if they pay in cash. But that is also difficult because there are people that cannot afford to do so.
In addition to the secondary market, and the social security blockage, international drug companies prefer to sell their products in countries other than Greece, due to the nation's financial situation. Also the companies that import medicine demand to be paid cash which is not possible nowadays.